Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John ScalziThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, science fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Tor Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi's first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.
When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls "an animal rights organization." Tom's team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.
What Tom doesn't tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They're the universe's largest and most dangerous panda and they're in trouble.
It's not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that's found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too--and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

My Review:

It feels like this is the first thing I’ve read that actually deals head-on with life during the COVID pandemic. Plenty of things talk around it, and often those were written about the plague before it ACTUALLY happened, but The Kaiju Preservation Society just slams right into it.

It also feels like this is going to be one of the archetypes for how it gets dealt with in fiction, because this book is just plain damn funny. Even if, or especially because, much of the humor is gallows humor because there was an actual gallows looming over everything as lives, careers, hopes and dreams died with abandon – and sometimes abandonment – during those strange, unreal years.

So it’s entirely fitting that this is a story about giving not just the pandemic but the whole, entire Earth the middle finger and sloping off to a place that no one ever imagined existed. No matter how much we were ALL looking for a complete escape just like this at the time.

With or without Godzilla. Because that’s what a kaiju is, a Godzilla-type monster that occasionally slips between the cracks of the multiverse to terrorize our version of Earth.

But Jamie Gray, who gets fired from his fairly cushy job as an executive for a meal delivery service start up JUST as the country in locking down, then becomes a desperate “deliverator” for the company that fired him, lucks into the experience of a lifetime when his very last customer offers him a job at the mysterious “KPS” because the person on their crew who does heavy lifting is unavailable at the absolutely last minute.

Jamie’s in. He’s been down and out for six months, running through his savings, keeping his best friends from becoming homeless because their jobs have dried up too, and he’s at the end of all his ropes. KPS, whatever and wherever it is, has to be better than what he’s doing now. And the money is fantastic.

So, it turns out, is the experience.

Escape Rating A-: The Kaiju Preservation Society reads like vintage Scalzi of the Old Man’s War and Redshirts variety. The message sneaks up on the reader, much as it does in Old Man’s War, but it’s not quite as deep, while the snark-o-matic is dialed all the way up as it is in Redshirts.

So it’s light if not fluffy and not so much a laugh riot as filled with nerdy jokes, rueful chuckles and occasional outright guffaws from beginning to end. And not dissimilar to the author’s actual voice if one has ever seen him in person. (Scalzi read a bit of KPS on the recent JoCo Cruise and let’s just say that the man doesn’t have to act AT ALL to be the voice of Jamie Gray.)

While the pandemic provides the perfect excuse for Jamie Gray to sign up for a 6 month tour with KPS, as it turns out on Kaiju Earth, it’s his experiences once he steps through the portal in remote, chilly Labrador to the steamy jungle of an alternate Earth where one of the big extinction events just didn’t happen and kaiju evolved to be the apex predator that give the story its heart, its snark and its lesson.

It doesn’t matter how much bigger and more badass the monsters actually are, humans are always the most truly monstrous thing we ever encounter.

But first we get the joy and camaraderie of a whole bunch of very smart, very savvy, very geeky and extremely nerdy people having the absolute time of their lives doing really cool science in this most alien of places that is surprisingly close to home.

The feel of this part of the story, the sheer joy of doing stuff that literally no one has ever done before surrounded by people who are just as into it as you are reminds me a lot of Dan Koboldt’s Domesticating Dragons – and not just for the dragon/kaiju connection. But the love of doing science and breaking new ground and having great colleagues all in it together is very similar, so if you’re looking for another taste of this kind of SF try that.

Yes, there’s a bit of Jurassic Park in this. That’s kind of a “well, duh” comment after all. But the story is a lot more like The Rogue Retrieval (also by Koboldt) and S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador, in that someone with more power than sense, ethics or morals finds a gateway or portal to a place that already exists – and then invades with the hope of conquering it with as much firepower as they can muster.

In all of these portal stories the central problem is kind of the same, in that whenever we humans find someplace new we bring ourselves – which is about the worst thing we could do anywhere to anything. That the author manages to circle that all the way back to the very beginning of this story – all the way back to that start up and the very asshole who fired him was just plain epic. With a heaping helping of utterly marvelous schadenfreude and revenge slathered on top.

And that was just delicious.

Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Review: Murder by Other Means by John ScalziMurder by Other Means (The Dispatcher #2) by John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, thriller, urban fantasy
Series: Dispatcher #2
Published by Audible Studios on September 10th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense...and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

My Review:

The character of Tony Valdez and the world he inhabits was introduced in the first Dispatcher story, fittingly titled The Dispatcher. And unlike this second entry in the series, The Dispatcher is available as a hardcover and an ebook, so if the premise sounds intriguing but audiobooks aren’t your thing, you can get a taste for the story that way. (Also, I don’t think anyone will be surprised when a book version of Murder by Other Means turns up. Eventually. But patience is not one of my virtues so I was haunting Audible as soon as I heard this was coming up so I could get a pre-order in.)

The world that Tony Valdez inhabits – or that produced him, take your pick – is fascinating. And weird. And yet, not all that different from our own. Except in one, rather singular, particular. One day, in the not distant at all future, murder becomes theoretically impossible. Suicide and accidents both still happen, but murder, not so much. 999 times out of a 1000 not so much.

Which doesn’t mean that killing people for a living isn’t still kind of a soul-destroying way to pay the rent. Even if it is legal. The person still dies. They still spray their blood and bone matter all over the killer. Then they vanish – along with the mess you made of them, only to reappear, whole and intact and alive, someplace they considered safe. Usually home. Always naked.

So dispatching people has become a job. A licensed, regulated and controlled job. And Tony Valdez is a dispatcher. Someone who dispatches people for a living.

As this story opens, it’s become a poor living. The legal and ethical markets for dispatching, mostly hospitals, have dried up due to budget cuts. Leaving Tony behind on his rent and his bills, and willing to do some dispatching that isn’t exactly on the up and up.

After all, dispatching business people so they can beat a competitor to a lucrative deal isn’t remotely covered by Tony’s license to kill. But it does pay a lot of cash money. And it comes with more headaches than Tony ever imagined.

Because someone has figured out a way around that whole people can’t be murdered anymore thing. And Tony has to prove it before he gets taken out the same way, murdered by other means.

Escape Rating A: John Scalzi has a very fine line in snark. In fact, his snarkitude is a good chunk of what I read him – or in this case listen to him – FOR. His characters generally do a marvelous chuckle-with-a-grimace job at making me chuckle with that grimace, because they manage to say all the clever things that most of us figure out long after a conversation is done while said conversation is still going on – when that smart-aleck-ness can be delivered with full force – even if it’s just within the confines of the characters own head.

Which is where we spend the entirety of Murder by Other Means. In Tony Valdez’ head.

There’s also usually at least one character in each of this author’s stories that feels like it’s the voice of the author’s public persona, and in this particular series, it’s definitely Tony. Meaning that if you like Tony’s “voice” in this story there’s a very good chance you’ll like the author’s other work as well, including his blog, Whatever. If Tony’s too snarky for your taste than probably Scalzi is too. I digress.

As I said, the snarkitude is what I read this author for.

Something that I wasn’t expecting, but loved all the same, was Tony’s Chicago. Even more so than the first book in this series, Tony’s Chicago sounded and felt like the Chicago I remember, to the point where I’m pretty sure that at one point I lived in the same neighborhood that Tony does.

Even the “L” stops are the same. So when Tony described buildings and places, it was more than just seeing them in my head. I remembered them in a way that invoked a profound familiarity as well as nostalgia. I was just there in a way that doesn’t happen often but was utterly wonderful.

This week has turned out to be bookended by stories set in Chi-Town, and that trip down memory lane – however twisted into fiction – has been lovely.

But this is, primarily, a mystery story – even if it does have a futuristic and/or urban fantasy type vibe. It honestly feels more like urban fantasy, as Tony’s Chicago doesn’t feel all that far away in time from the now. And there’s no science. No one knows why people stopped dying by murder. It could be science. It could be magic. It could be a deus ex machina. And it doesn’t matter.

What matters is the human response to the change. And that is something that we get a terrific perspective on through Tony’s eyes and in Tony’s voice. The fascination in the story is that the circumstances may change, but human beings are still totally screwed up.

And the way that they are – that we are – screwed up leads both to the crime and its solution in a way that keeps the reader in Tony’s head long after his voice (marvelously brought to life by Zachary Quinto) fades away.

Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

Review: The Last Emperox by John ScalziThe Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Interdependency #3
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on April 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction… and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people from impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization… or the last emperox to wear the crown?

My Review:

It is impossible, reading this now in the midst of the COVID19 crisis, not to see just how much the situation that the people of the Interdependency are in parallels life as we currently know it. The degree of resonance alternates between astonishing and appalling, depending on where in the story one is and what one thinks about current conditions.

Making it all the more amazing that when this story began, with the writing of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, probably sometime in the fall of 2016 for its March 2017 release. Not that, from certain perspectives, the world wasn’t already headed for a dumpster fire in the fall of 2016.

But just as no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects a worldwide pandemic, and no one in the Interdependency expected the basis of their entire, interdependent (hence the name), galaxy-spanning civilization to collapse relatively suddenly and without nearly enough warning to re-shape said civilization in time to save all that much of it.

If they can manage to overcome the sheer, unadulterated self-centered selfishness of the so-called elites and do the right thing – if anyone can figure out what that is – in time. They might manage to save civilization. But they don’t have a prayer of saving all of the people in it.

This is one of those cases where the needs of the many really, really, seriously outweigh the needs of the few. And, like so many of those cases, so much is dependent on who gets to decide who constitutes those “many”.

For Nadashe Nohamapeton, the many are the members of the Interdependency’s ruling families and mercantile guilds, who are frequently one and the same. She has a plan to save them – or at least those of them that haven’t pissed her off or done her wrong or gotten in her way. Of course, anyone who falls into any of those three categories can be eliminated, even if they are members of her own family.

As for the billions of people who make up the Interdepency, in Nadashe’s worldview they are all expendable. They are to be lied to, placated if possible, subjugated if necessary and left behind to die in isolation while the important parts of the Interdepency leave Hub for End, the only planet in the entire system capable of supporting human life all by itself without the resources of the Interdepency to fill in the gaps.

Among the people standing in Nadashe’s way is the Emperox. She’ll need to be taken out of Nadashe’s way so that those who Nadashe believes are the important parts of the Interdepency can survive. So from Nadashe’s perspective the Emperox has to go. After all, she’s sitting in the seat that Nadashe plans to occupy.

To Emperox Grayland II, the many are the people of the Interdepency. All of those billions that Nadashe plans to leave behind to die in the dark and the cold. Or whatever terrible fate befalls them. Nadashe may not care but Grayland certainly does. What she doesn’t have is a plan. Not exactly. But with the help of Marce Claremont, her scientific advisor – and lover – they might have just enough time to discover a way to save, maybe not everyone, but an awful, awful lot of the people who, in Grayland’s mind, are the Interdependency.

But if the population as a whole constitute the many, then Grayland, and Marce, are the few – and the one.

Escape Rating A+: I had a terrible approach/avoidance issue with this book. A part of that was because I had originally intended to listen to it, as I have to the entire rest of the series. The walking profanity explosion that is Kiva Lagos is best appreciated in audio. She just doesn’t have the same impact when reading the book yourself. Also, Wil Wheaton has done a fantastic job with the series, including this entry. But I normally listen while driving, or while on a treadmill at the gym, and everything has been closed. I had more time for reading but fewer opportunities for listening. In the end I mostly played Solitaire and just let the audio wash over me. It was marvelous.

Also, and probably more importantly, this is the last book in the trilogy, and I knew that going in. So I was going to have to say goodbye to all of these wonderful characters and this fascinating world, and I was NOT looking forward to that – at all.

By the nature of the setup of the series, it was also pretty clear that there could not possibly be a happy ending. The end of their civilization is coming, it’s not their fault, but there isn’t anything they can do to stop it, either. By a whole lot of definitions, this is a no-win scenario. In order to have an unequivocal happy ending for these characters, there would have to occur an unbelievable amount of deus ex machina. Possibly even dei ex machina, a whole damn pantheon of dei.

And it would have been a cheat. So I was expecting a butcher’s bill at the end. I had no illusions about that, but it did mean that I wanted to know how it all worked out – but didn’t exactly WANT to know who got worked out of the story to make it wrap up.

I’ll admit that there was a point near the end where the whole thing gave me the weepies. It reminded me very much of Delenn’s absolute tearjerker scene in the Babylon 5 finale “Sleeping in Light”. I cried then, too.

But what I think will stick in the mind about this series has a lot more to do with Kiva Lagos’ observation that, “whenever selfish humans encountered a wrenching, life-altering crisis, they embarked on a journey of five distinct stages:

1. Denial.
2. Denial.
3. Denial
4. Fucking Denial.
5. Oh shit everything is terrible grab what you can and run.”

This trilogy as a whole is about the response to stage five. Whether it is possible, or not, to draw back from that brink or get past that impulse and figure out a way to not just “rage against the dying of the light” but to finesse a way around it. In spite of all the people saying it can’t be done, as well as more than a few – like Nadashe – saying it shouldn’t be done.

It’s a great story about the indomitability of the human spirit. Also about the corruptibility of the human spirit, and the conflict between the two. With an ending that is an absolute punch to the gut.

One final note. The ending of the series as a whole had one last twist to throw at everyone. A twist that turns out kind of like the ending of the joke about a German Shepherd, a Doberman and a cat who have died and gone to heaven. I’ll leave you to discover who plays the part of the cat.

Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

Review: The Consuming Fire by John ScalziThe Consuming Fire (The Interdependency #2) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #2
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


The Consuming Fire
--the second thrilling novel in the bestselling Interdependency series, from the Hugo Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi

The Interdependency, humanity's interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it--unless desperate measures can be taken.

Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth--or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war, a war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will take place between spaceships and battlefields. The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, but then so are her enemies. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy... and all of humanity will be caught in its widening gyre.

My Review:

There is a description that claims that science fiction is a fantasy of political agency. That is certainly true of The Consuming Fire, and the entire Interdependency series so far. It could also be said that in this series, a significant part of the story is just which characters have fantasies that they in particular have political agency. Actually fantasies that they have considerably more political agency than they really have. Part of the story is watching at least some of those characters get disabused of that notion – and occasionally with extreme prejudice.

Another way of looking at this story is that it is all about power. There’s that old saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely, but it doesn’t quite apply here. No one really has absolute power. The person who seems on the surface to have the most, Emperox Grayland II, mostly seems to have the kind of power that the Queen of England has. That is, the power to advise, the power to encourage, and the power to warn. Her power isn’t quite that restricted, but it feels close to that – especially from her perspective.

However, the desire for absolute power does seem to corrupt absolutely. Or at least that’s the model that the Nohamapeton family seems to be following. The Countess Nohamapeton wants absolute power. She wants her family to control the throne. So far, she’s sacrificed two sons to that ambition and possibly her daughter as well. Not to mention all the other people she has arranged to have eliminated along the way. And she’s still plotting.

There’s that saying about diplomacy being war waged by other means. In this book there’s a corollary that applies – politics is civil war waged by other means. There are a lot of cutthroat politics in this one, sometimes with throats literally being cut – or shot – or wrecked.

This is also a story about inevitable change, and the many, varied and frequently counterproductive ways that people react in the face of that change. Interstellar commerce is founded on and dependent upon a poorly understood means of faster-than-light interstellar travel, called “the Flow”. The Flow has been more or less dependable for a millennium, and people have gotten very, very used to the idea that it will always be dependable.

But it isn’t. The Flow is collapsing – hence the title of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire. Flow scientists barely understand the flow well enough to predict the collapse. They certainly don’t understand it well enough to prevent the collapse.

So all that anyone in the Interdependency can do is react to the eminent collapse.Often, but not always, badly.

Of course there are a few people, and at times it seems like very few, who are doing the best they can to save as much as possible, however they can. It’s a more difficult task than it might be, because the Interdependency doesn’t seem to have many planets that can support human life. Not many actually equals just one – and it’s a planet that has already been partially cut off from the Flow.

Everyone else lives on habitats that orbit planets that happen to have been conveniently located for the Flow streams. Which is going to literally turn to hell (not) on Earth as they each get cut off from the supplies and equipment they need to maintain those high-tech habitats.

The Emperox Grayland II is one of those people who are trying to save, if not the Interdependency itself, at least as many of the people in it as is possible. But she has very few allies, and plenty of people who want to skim the cream off the status quo for as long as possible.

At the end of the book – although certainly not the end of the story – Grayland’s enemies discover that SHE is the consuming fire – a fire that will turn their petty machinations to ash in pursuit of her goal to save everyone else – or at least as much of everyone else as is possible.

Escape Rating A-: The Interdependency, at least so far, is a very political space opera. This is a government that was deliberately created to have wheels within wheels. Keeping those wheels properly greased has been the millennia long job of the Wu family. After all, creating the Interdependency and getting themselves installed as the Imperial Family was all about their wheels getting greased. They made sure that the setup also greased all the wheels of anyone who could have stood in their way at the time.

The creation of the Interdependency was a very cynical act. Effective, but cynical. The current Emperox isn’t nearly as cynical as some of predecessors, but she has plenty of motivation to do her best. And plenty of even more cynical people to keep from killing her. If you like political SF, this series so far is a lot of fun. It’s not a situation that one would remotely want to be in, but the machinations are fascinating to watch.

All in all, I have to say that The Consuming Fire is typical Scalzi. If you like the author, as I certainly do, you will eat this one up with a spoon, and then moan and complain when you reach the bottom of the bowl.

(Admittedly, if you don’t already like Scalzi, this book will probably not change your mind. It’s very typical of all the things I read him FOR. Which, if they don’t work for you, this book won’t either.)

I started this on audio, and Wil Wheaton again did an awesome job reading the story. His normal just slightly snarky tone is perfect for this author, because there is always a lot of subtle and sometimes not so subtle, snark in his work. But I wanted to see how this installment ends – and I felt the need to finish the book before we see the author in person on Thursday, so I bought the ebook and finished in an hour.

It is also hilarious to hear someone reading all of Kiva Lagos’ dialog. Kiva may possibly be the most profane character I’ve ever run across. She clearly does not know how to construct a sentence without at least one f-bomb in it. Her lines are funny to read, but almost brutal – and appropriately so – when read.

The Consuming Fire is not the place to start this series. The setup of the Flow and the way that the Interdependency interdepends upon it is all set up in the first book, The Collapsing Empire. And that’s also where we get introduced to all of the characters that make this story so much fun.

This is also, thank goodness, not the place where this story ends. There will be at least one more book. Because things are always darkest just before they turn completely black – and they haven’t turned completely black yet.

I’ll be over here, waiting with the proverbial bated breath, until they do. Hopefully next year, in the very tentatively titled The Last Emperox.

Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah WolfeRobots vs. Fairies by Dominik Parisien, Navah Wolfe, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Liu, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Annalee Newitz, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, Lavie Tidhar, Catherynne M. Valente, Alyssa Wong, Madeline Ashby, Lila Bowen, Jeffrey Ford, Sarah Gailey, Max Gladstone, Maria Dahvana Headley, Jim C. Hines, Kat Howard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, science fiction, short stories, urban fantasy
Pages: 373
Published by Saga Press on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A unique anthology of all-new stories that challenges authors to throw down the gauntlet in an epic genre battle and demands an answer to the age-old question: Who is more awesome—robots or fairies?

Rampaging robots! Tricksy fairies! Facing off for the first time in an epic genre death match!

People love pitting two awesome things against each other. Robots vs. Fairies is an anthology that pitches genre against genre, science fiction against fantasy, through an epic battle of two icons.

On one side, robots continue to be the classic sci-fi phenomenon in literature and media, from Asimov to WALL-E, from Philip K. Dick to Terminator. On the other, fairies are the beloved icons and unquestionable rulers of fantastic fiction, from Tinkerbell to Tam Lin, from True Blood to Once Upon a Time. Both have proven to be infinitely fun, flexible, and challenging. But when you pit them against each other, which side will triumph as the greatest genre symbol of all time?

There can only be one…or can there?

My Review:

Are you Team Robot or Team Fairy? After reading this collection, I’m definitely Team Fairy, but your mileage will definitely vary. And it may depend a bit on where you start from.

The introduction to the collection sets up the premise. Either robots or fairies are going to end up as our eventual overlords. So half of the stories in this collection are fairy stories, and half are robot stories. All of the introductions and afterwords to all of the stories play on the theme that half the writers will be vindicated and the other half were misguided.

Personally, I think that they are all misguided and cats will be our ultimate overlords – not that they aren’t already. But that’s an entirely different collection that I hope someone writes someday.

About this collection, half the stories, the fairy stories, fall into urban fantasy, more or less, and the other half, the robotic arm, so to speak, are science fiction.

Overall, it was the fairy stories that moved me the most. My taste for fairies in contemporary fiction was set long ago, by the magically wonderful War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, and quite a few of the fairy stories in this collection fit into that vein, with fairies hidden in plain sight of our contemporary world.

The thing about robots is that they are only interesting, at least to this reader, if they reflect us in some way – where fairies already are OTHER. The one robot story in this collection I really enjoyed felt like space opera – which I definitely do love. The robot in this particular story was a prop and not the centerpiece.

That being said, the stories that I really liked in this collection were the fairy stories.

Build Me A Wonderland by Seanan McGuire surprised me in a good way. I’ve bounced off her work, both as McGuire and as Grant, multiple times, but this story was just lovely. It was also one of the few upbeat stories in the collection. The fairies are hiding in plain sight by being the miracle workers in a contemporary magic factory. In other words, they work for an amusement park. And the elves want in!

Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt combined two things I love – fairies and libraries – into something super-awesome. This story is one that I would have loved to see expanded into a novel because this world is so interesting. It’s all about the magic in books, and both the power and the joy of being a “master” librarian.

Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey is a great story for Halloween, as is Just Another Love Song by Kat Howard. Both stories deal in the dark side of magic, with a heaping helping of revenge served at the appropriate temperature and evil getting the desserts it has so richly deserved. Read with the lights on.

The one robot story that I really enjoyed was Sound and Fury by Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked this one because it didn’t feel like a robot story at all. There’s a robot in it, and the robot does play a big part in the story, but the robot is not remotely self aware. It’s a tool. It’s technically a tool for one of the characters who is also a tool, but it becomes a tool in the hands of the spaceship crew and it’s really about them. In other words, this story felt like space opera.

And one robot story got me in the feels. That was Ironheart by Jonathan Maberry. But again, this doesn’t feel like a robot story. It feels like a very, very human story. A heartbreaking one.

A Fall Counts Anywhere by Catherynne M. Valente is the perfect ending for this collection. It takes the premise literally, with a robot and a fae commentating on a sports match up between the two sides in an epic free-for-all melee-style brawl. Their commentating is a laugh a minute – until it suddenly isn’t. They say that Mother Nature bats last – but who bats for Mother Nature?

Escape Rating B-: Like all short story collections, this one was a bit uneven. Overall I found the fairy stories more interesting and absorbing than the robot stories, with those two very notable exceptions. I’m sure that those on Team Robot think the exact opposite.

Review: Head On by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: Head On by John Scalzi + GiveawayHead On (Lock In, #2) by John Scalzi
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Series: Lock In #2
Pages: 336
Published by Tor Books on April 17th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

My Review:

Head On is the sequel to 2014’s utterly marvelous Lock In, and is part of the near-future post-Hadens world that is first introduced in the the novella Unlocked. And that’s a hint that if you are interested in Head On you really need to start with Unlocked, which introduces the worldbuilding and then read Lock In which introduces the main characters of Head On and the scenario in which they find themselves.

It’s also more than a hint that while this review of Head On will attempt to be spoiler-free for Head On, there will certainly be spoilers for Lock In.

It has been said that science fiction is a kind of universal recipient when it comes to genres, and that mystery is a universal donor. In the sense that SF is a setting that can contain any genre, while mystery as the “donor” can be injected into any setting.

That’s certainly the case here. Head On is not merely a mystery, but bears a significant resemblance to a specific kind of mystery, the police procedural. Our protagonists in this series, veteran Leslie Vann and her junior partner Chris Sloane are FBI agents investigating a series of deaths that at first appear to be mostly coincidental, but in are all fairly quickly discovered to be murders.

What makes Head On (and its predecessor Lock In) science fiction is the setting. These stories take place in a near-future, near enough that it is recognizable from here. But it is a near-future that is 25 years after the world-wide Hadens pandemic. Hadens Syndrome manifested mostly like a cross between the flu and meningitis. Nasty and serious, but generally not lethal. However, 1% of the world’s population developed a long-term side effect known as “lock in”, where their brains were still very much alive and reacting to stimuli, but had absolutely no way to communicate with the bodies that they were now locked into.

While 1% of the world’s population sounds small, using today’s population numbers (7.6 billion) that would mean that 76 million people were locked in. For a comparison, that’s more than the populations of California and Texas combined. In other words, it’s a LOT of people.

And that’s a lot of people to provide services for, which means there’s a lot of money involved. And a lot of government grants and tax breaks, and a lot of businesses that have grown up around providing for those needs and taking advantage of those government grants. There are lots and lots of lots and LOTS.

So while Head On is a murder mystery, it takes place in a world that could only exist in science fiction, the near-future post-Hadens world.

Chris and Leslie find themselves investigating a crime that could also only exist in this world. A player of the new “Hadens-only” sport, Hilketa, dies during an exhibition match that Chris is attending. It’s the very first player death in Hilketa, but initially it seems not dissimilar to player injuries and player deaths in any contact sport – even though in Hilketa the only contact is between the players’ threeps and not the players’ actual bodies. Still, the adrenaline spikes and emotional tolls of playing a big-money spectator sport are experienced by Hadens players, so it’s not completely surprising that one might suffer a stroke or a seizure while playing.

But the league’s actions after the death move the incident from tragic to highly suspicious in the beat of a heart. And that’s where Chris, and eventually Chris’ partner Leslie, step in. Pulling all the data on the dead player while the match is going on is highly questionable. When the league official who ordered that data pulled commits suicide immediately afterwards, it’s pretty obvious that something is up, even if Chris and Leslie don’t yet know what.

The rules of investigation in the near-future are surprisingly similar to those of the present-day. Or even the historic past. When all else fails – FOLLOW THE MONEY.

Escape Rating A: I read this on a plane ride from DC to Atlanta. And I read it early relative to its publication date, because I just couldn’t resist the treat any longer. No pun intended, it made the trip absolutely fly by. I’m just sorry that I can’t read it again for the first time – it was just that good.

Because Chris is a Haden, and his physical presence in the world is represented by a threep (really any threep as Chris borrows and wrecks several) his gender is actually indeterminate. Although he has a physical body, whether that body is male or female doesn’t really matter. What matters is how Chris sees himself and how he presents himself to the world, and not his threep, but his mental presence in the Hadens online universe, the Agora.

And I keep saying “him” and “his” even though Chris never does and it is deliberately kept ambiguous in the story. To the point where there were two audio recordings of Lock In and there will be two of Head On, one read by a female narrator, and one by a male narrator.

I finally figured out that my mental image of Chris is male because he/she/they does not have to think about or deal with any of the baggage that someone physically presenting in the meat-space world as female has to deal with. That Chris does not have all that baggage that women can’t help but pick him made Chris a “him” to me, even if Chris isn’t. (Chris is also mixed race, and as a Haden Chris doesn’t have to deal with any of THAT baggage either.)

The baggage that Chris does have to deal with are the prejudices that people have against threeps. Because they generally see them as robots or droids, and not as presentations for actual human beings. And it does cause problems, but a different set of problems than living/working while either black, female or both.

Part of what makes these books so good is that while this is recognizably a future and not the present, it is also recognizable as human space and human beings and human reactions. Whether meat or threeps, people are still people, for all the good and bad definitions of “people”. Human nature does not change based on the carrier it’s in. As a species we still clearly have a lot of work to do.

The case that Chris and Leslie have to solve could only happen in this SFnal universe. At the same time, it very much follows the pattern of a police procedural mystery, even if some of those procedures have necessarily been altered.

The mystery is relatively easy to solve for the reader. It is considerably more difficult for Chris and Leslie to prove, but the villain is fairly obvious pretty early on. Which does not make the story one scintilla less fascinating to follow.

I had an absolute blast. If you like science fiction, or mysteries, or John Scalzi’s writing, or especially all of the above, you will too.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

As the final act in my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week, I’m doing the same thing I did last year – taking this opportunity to share one of my favorite authors with one lucky commenter. The winner of this giveaway will receive a copy of any book by John Scalzi, up to $20 in value, anywhere that the Book Depository ships. This will allow the winner to choose the hardcover of Head On if that’s what they want – the book comes out on 4/17, so the giveaway closes just in time to get a pre-order in. But the winner can choose ANY title they want, from his first book, the marvelous Old Man’s War, to the hilarious (and Hugo-Award-winning) Redshirts or anything between then and now. If the winner wants an ebook, and can get ebooks from Amazon (or audiobooks from Audible) that’s OK too.

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Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + GiveawayThe Collapsing Empire Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Interdependency #1
Pages: 334
on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new
universe.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

My Review:

My first thought upon finishing The Collapsing Empire was “Oh…My…GOD

The second was that rolling your eyes while driving is a really bad idea, especially if you do it OFTEN. Actually I had that though much earlier in the book, when I was doing a LOT of eye rolling. The ending is far from an eye roll situation, but the advice still stands.

So i’m back to the Oh My God reaction, which I’m still hearing in Wil Wheaton’s voice as the reader of The Collapsing Empire. Which I listened to, pretty much everywhere, sometimes rolling my eyes, often smiling or even outright laughing, from the surprising beginning to the even more astonishing end.

Which isn’t really an end, because it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a much bigger story, which I hope we get Real Soon Now, but don’t actually expect for a year or more.

So what was it?

The title both does and doesn’t give it away. The Empire, in this case the human empire that calls itself the Interdependency, is about to collapse. Not due to warfare or anything so prosaic, but because, well, science. The interstellar network that keeps the far-flung reaches of the Interdependency interdependent is on the verge of an unstoppable collapse.. So what we have at the moment is the story of the maneuvering and machinations as what passes for the powers that be, or that hope to be the powers that become, jockey for position (and survival) in the suddenly onrushing future.

And humans being humans, while some panic there are a whole lot of people who remain so invested in the status quo that they are unwilling to act because any actions upset their positions now, and they hope, very much against hope, that the predictions are wrong. Not because they really believe in their heart of hearts that they ARE wrong, but because they want them to be wrong so very badly.

Any resemblance between the Interdependency and 21st century America is probably intended – but agreeing or disagreeing with that statement doesn’t change the sheer rushing “WOW” of the story.

That story of the empire that’s about to collapse is primarily told through the eyes of four very, very different people (not that the side characters aren’t themselves quite fascinating). But as things wind up, and as the empire begins to wind down, we get our view of the impending fall mostly from these four, or people who surround them.

The first is Ghreni Nohamapeton, the most frequent source of my eye-rolling. Ghreni is a slippery manipulative little bastard, but he is about to be hoist on his own petard. Or possibly not. He thinks he knows what’s coming, and of course, he doesn’t. Or does he?

Kiva Lagos may possibly be the most profane character it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, in literature or out of it. And her constant, continuous cursing sounds a bit much in an audiobook, but perfectly fits her character. Kiva is also manipulative as hell, and mercenary into the bargain. But somewhere between the hells, damns and f-bombs, there’s a heart. Or at least the desire to one-up Ghreni that provides some of the same functionality.

Marce Claremont is about to be the bearer of very bad tidings – if he can survive being the chew toy between Ghreni and Kiva long enough to deliver his message. And even though he knows that the delivery of it means that he really, really can’t go home again. Ever.

And finally we have Cardenia Wu, the recent and very reluctant Emperox of the Interdependency. A woman who is about to experience the very extreme end of that old saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” As a great man once said, “Some gifts come at just too high a price.” And that’s true whether you have to dance with the devil to get them, or just roll dice with fate.

Escape Rating A: I listened to this, and also have the ebook. I expected to switch between, but in the end just couldn’t tear myself away from Wil Wheaton’s marvelous reading. He does a terrific job with all of the voices, and adds even more fun to a book that was already fantastic.

But I need that ebook to look up all the names. It seems as if none of them are spelled quite the way they sound. And the ship’s names are an exercise in absurdity from beginning to end. (This aspect may be an homage to the late Iain Banks’ Culture series). But the first ship we meet is the “Tell Me Another One” which is this reader’s general response to Scalzi’s work. I want him to tell me another one, as soon as possible. But also, and as usual, everyone’s leg is getting pulled more than a bit, and not from the same direction.

Lots of things in this story made me smile, quite often ruefully. The scenario is painful, and as this book closes we know that the situation in general is only going to get worse, and possibly not get better. But for the individuals, life is going on. And the characters exhibit all of the sarcasm that this author is known for.

Some of it has the ring of gallows humor to it, and that’s also right. No one is likely to come out of this unscathed by the end, and that’s obvious to the reader from the beginning, even if not to the characters.

This is also a story of merchant empires and political skullduggery. And yes, there is plenty of commentary on that aspect to chew on for a long time, quite possibly until the next book in the series. Like so much of Scalzi’s work, The Collapsing Empire makes the reader laugh, and it makes the reader think, quite often at the same time.

Ghreni and Kiva both represent different ways in which the current systems of the Interdependency have been taken to their extreme limit. But Marce and Cardenia are the characters that we sympathize with. They are both operating against impossible odds, and we like them and want them to succeed. Whether they will or not is left to the subsequent books in this series.

And I really, really, really can’t wait to see what happens next.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because this is part of my annual Blogo-Birthday celebration, I want to share the love. And the books. John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and I hope he’ll become one of yours too. To that end, I’m giving away one copy of any of Scalzi’s works, (up to $20) to one lucky commenter on this post. This giveaway includes The Collapsing Empire, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Scalzi, Old Man’s War is probably the best place to begin.

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Review: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Review: The Dispatcher by John ScalziThe Dispatcher Formats available: hardcover, audiobook
Series: Dispatcher #1
Pages: 128
on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher - a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death's crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge a supposed wrong.
It's a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it's too late...before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

My Review:

The Dispatcher was the inaugural audiobook for my new car. I love audiobooks, but it’s been a while since I had a car that could play them. I also don’t have a very long commute, so I wanted to ease back into things with a relatively short book. The Dispatcher was perfect for that.

It was also very, very good.

The Dispatcher was written by John Scalzi, one of my favorite science fiction authors. But except for the science fictional nature of the device that makes this whole story possible, The Dispatcher really isn’t SF at all. It’s a mystery. Specifically a missing persons case, solved by a savvy Chicago police detective and her reluctant consultant.

The device that makes this whole story possible, and gives it many of its twists, is a change to the world we know. Murder has become impossible. Death is still very possible, but murder doesn’t happen anymore. Not exactly.

About 8 years before this story begins, someone was murdered. And instead of being permanently dead, they went poof, and found themselves alive, well and naked, on their bed at home, in the same condition they were in a few hours before the shot that was intended to be fatal.

And it kept happening. Murdered people didn’t die. They poofed back home instead. Every single time. Well almost.

1 person in 1,000 doesn’t poof. Still, that’s way better odds than before the poofing began. Whatever the cause of said poofing.

Of course, people being people, this creates all new avenues for abuse. And all new bureaucracies to license the folks who become, effectively, professional murderers. They call them “dispatchers” because they, well, dispatch people.

And it all seems to be going reasonably well. At least until one dispatcher goes missing, and that detective and her reluctant consultant, the dispatcher of the title, investigate the disappearance. With a clock ticking in the background. Because while the missing man hasn’t been murdered, that doesn’t mean he can’t turn up dead.

Unless they find him first. And to do that, they’ll have to unravel a Gordian Knot of illegal side jobs, private medical “remediation” and old school ties between business and the mob.

Even with murder officially off the table, Chicago is still Chicago.

Escape Rating A-: As a story, this is great fun. And it does lead the listener on a very merry chase, because nothing is exactly as it seems.

Our hero, Tony Valdez, is a dispatcher. He’s never had a failed dispatch, so what he does doesn’t feel like murder. So far, at least, everybody lives.

He’s a very reluctant hero. He wants to help find his friend, the missing Jimmy Albert, but he doesn’t want the police to get too close to his business. He’s currently legit, but there are plenty of gray areas in the dispatching business. And once upon a time, Tony seems to have explored all of them.

As the cop says, it’s a shit show. Or it can be. Legit is safer, and a bit easier on the conscience.

The way that the story unwinds is fascinating, and incredibly fun to follow. We see what the world has become, and that it isn’t that much different from now. But the differences represented by Tony’s job open up all sorts of possible ways to talk about the way things are then, and the way things are now.

People, after all, are still people.

And the conclusion is a “people” conclusion, not a technical or an SFnal one. What happens happens because of human nature, love and hate and fear and a rage against that dying of the light.

About the audio performance. The Dispatcher is currently only available in audio, and was scripted for that format. There’s a hardcover coming out in May for those who just don’t do audio (or want to have something for the author to sign), but this is a marvelous place to start if you are curious about what it is like to listen to a story instead of reading it.

The story is performed by Zachary Quinto, of Heroes and Star Trek reboot fame. He does an absolutely terrific job, not just in voicing Tony, but also in portraying the female police detective and the elderly suspect, as well as all the other characters who pass through the story. His performance, particularly his world-weary voice for Tony, add a great deal to the pleasure of this story.

There was a brief period when the audio of The Dispatcher was available free on Audible. I missed that window, so I paid for my copy. And it was so worth it.

Review: Miniatures by John Scalzi

Review: Miniatures by John ScalziMiniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi by John Scalzi, Natalie Metzger
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 144
Published by Subterranean Press on December 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The ex-planet Pluto has a few choice words about being thrown out of the solar system. A listing of alternate histories tells you all the various ways Hitler has died. A lawyer sues an interplanetary union for dangerous working conditions. And four artificial intelligences explain, in increasingly worrying detail, how they plan not to destroy humanity.
Welcome to Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi.
These four stories, along with fourteen other pieces, have one thing in common: They’re short, sharp, and to the point—science fiction in miniature, with none of the stories longer than 2,300 words. But in that short space exist entire universes, absurd situations, and the sort of futuristic humor that propelled Scalzi to a Hugo with his novel Redshirts. Not to mention yogurt taking over the world (as it would).
Spanning the years from 1991 to 2016, this collection is a quarter century of Scalzi at his briefest and best, and features four never-before-printed stories, exclusive to this collection: “Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth,” “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back,” “Important Holidays on Gronghu” and “The AI Are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest.”

My Review:

Read this one if you need a laugh. Or a chuckle. Or a groan. But not necessarily in that order. Think of Miniatures as a very short, unfortunately temporary antidote to whatever gloom and doom is currently taking up entirely too much space in your head.

These little bits are funny. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes just chuckle-worthy, and all more than a bit “out there” in one direction or another. Think of Futurama, or Douglas Adams, or Star Trek, or The Twilight Zone, and throw them in a blender on puréed stun, and you’ll get the idea. A bit.

One story in this collection, Important Holidays on Gronghu, may not have been available in print before, but it has been around a bit. Specifically, the author performed it at WorldCon in Kansas City this year. Having heard it done, to side-splitting laughter on the part of both the author and the audience, this feels like a story that is better performed than read. While a chunk of the humor is in the situation, an awful lot of it is also in the unpronounceability of the Gronghu-ish names and holidays. It’s the kind of thing that gets funnier and funnier as it goes, especially as the cascading laughter inhibits the ability to pronounce pretty much anything.

To Sue the World is a bit of a precursor to Redshirts, which is admittedly much funnier, if also a tad longer. But what put the smile on my face in this story was the in-joke at the beginning. The law firm that the UU Redshirts have engaged to represent them is Koenig, Nichols and Montalban. Just think about it a minute, it will come to you, and you’ll smile too.

Several of the stories explore the theme of, not humans first contact with aliens, but more like the 21st million contact with aliens. Not what happens when we meet them the first time, but what happens when we have to live together day after day. Important Holidays on Gronghu is also an exploration of this theme, but in all of these stories, Life on Earth: Human Alien Relations, Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth and New Directives for Employee-Manxtse Interactions, we see humans being human, often with all-too-human mistakes and surprising results.

Two of my favorite stories poke more than a bit of gentle fun at superheroes, supervillains, and all the tropes that revolve around them. Sometimes revolve backwards in an attempt to change history. But in a world where superheroes are as common as they sometimes seem to be, someone has to handle contracts, bookings and OMG insurance. That’s Denise Jones, Superbooker. But speaking of insurance, Denise’s counterpart in the world of corporate-superhero-supervillain relations gets interviewed in The State of Super Villainy. Super villains generally are not very effective, but even nuisances cause problems. Which require planning. And coverage.

My favorite story is The Other Large Thing. It’s one that has to be read to make any sense at all, and the twist that makes it work is loads of fun. It reminded me a bit of Fritz Leiber’s classic Spacetime for Springers, possibly crossed with Pinky and the Brain. And it might come true.

Escape Rating B+: There is oh-so-definitely an escape in this book, and it’s lots of fun. Especially if you like your humor with a twist and a punch. Along with a surprising amount of thought hidden in plain sight.

We all need a good laugh these days, and this collection is guaranteed to have at least one story that will bring a smile to any geek’s face.

However, the poem is just weird, but not weird in the same good way as the rest of the collection. It made this reader think that it was probably an excellent thing that the author turned to prose and stayed there, not just for us, but also for him. At least he can now say he’s a published poet. And that’s probably enough said on the topic.

Me, the next time I fly, I’ll be checking the wings for gremlins.